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Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing
You've heard of the Dog Whisperer? Meet the Ancestor Rescuer.
Part forensic scientist, part master sleuth, Megan Smolenyak2 has solved some of America's oldest and most fascinating genealogical mysteries. You've read the headlines; now get the inside story as the "Indiana Jones of genealogy" reveals how she cracked her news-making cases, became the face of this increasingly popular field--and redefined history along the way.
How did Smolenyak2 discover Barack Obama's Irish ancestry--and his relation to Brad Pitt? Or the journey of Michelle Obama's family from slavery to the White House? Or the startling links between outspoken politicians Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond? And why is Smolenyak2's name squared? Test your own skills as she shares her exciting secrets.
Whether she's scouring websites to uncover the surprising connections between famous figures or using cutting-edge DNA tests to locate family members of fallen soldiers dating back to the Civil War, Smolenyak2's historical sleuthing is as provocative, richly layered, and exciting as America itself.
"Thank you for taking the time to lay out our family map... You're practically family. You certainly know more about us than we do." -Stephen Colbert
"Megan is a genealogist's dream, a forensic investigator who can also tell a great story." -Sam Roberts, The New York Times
"Megan is a blessing to cold case detectives and a master genealogist." -Julie M. Haney, special agent, NCIS Cold Case Homicide Unit
"The Indiana Jones of genealogy... Megan Smolenyak is a national treasure." -Buzzy Jackson, author of Shaking the Family Tree
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January 31, 2012
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Excerpt from Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing by Megan Smolenyak
No Man Left Behind (for Real)
A decade of forensic consulting for the Army Of all the research I've done to date, perhaps the most important is the forensic genealogy I do in conjunction with the repatriation efforts of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). Though many don't realize it, "no man left behind" is much more than an expression. The U.S. military genuinely does all it can to recover soldiers from all conflicts, and over the past decade, I've had the privilege of helping solve cases pertaining to WWI, WWII, Korea, and Southeast Asia.
As an army brat whose father served in Vietnam, I can't think of any more meaningful work. It gives me a deep sense of satisfaction each time one of "my boys" is identified and buried.
(I tend to get a little possessive, and even though it's tempting to think of the soldiers as old men since they mostly lived and died before I was born, I remind myself that the majority barely made it past their teens.) I've had the opportunity to visit JPAC's facility in Hawaii, and on the walls, there are large plaques with rows of gold faceplates engraved with the names of those who have been identified. Gazing at them and recognizing so many names is one of my best memories.
The perennial research boot camp this initiative provides is largely responsible for sharpening my skills and making me the sleuth I am today. In Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, he cites the ten- thousand- hour rule--the notion that once you've done something for that many hours, you tend to get pretty darn good at it. I'm blessed to have started genealogy in the sixth grade, but thanks to the effort I've put into locating thousands of family members for the army, I've gotten even better. The repatriation project gives me the chance to flex my search muscles every day with cases that take me to every corner of America (not to mention a number of other countries) and expose me to family dynamics I never could have imagined. When you research thousands of people, you're bound to confront a stunning array of human drama, and because of that, these cases keep me humble as a genealogist. Just when I think I've seen it all, they throw me curves I never could have dreamed of. And because I'm the one who locates and cold- calls my way into the lives of soldiers' families, I've evolved into a hybrid genealogist/detective, as good at finding the living as the dearly departed.
This work has also served as the springboard for so much more I've gone on to do, such as establishing Unclaimed Persons, a volunteer organization that assists coroners, and helping the FBI and NCIS with cold cases (more on both of these in upcoming chapters)--but I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.
Did you know that roughly 75,000 Americans are unaccounted for from WWII, and another 8,000 from Korea and 1,700 from Vietnam? You can add still others from WWI and Cold War days, but unless these figures include someone from your family, there's a good chance you haven't heard of JPAC.
Headquartered in Hawaii, its mission is to "achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of the nation's past conflicts."
Some four hundred-people strong, it consists of personnel from all American armed forces and some of the most highly respected forensic anthropologists in the world. Every year, JPAC teams scour the globe for remains and effects of soldiers from past conflicts in conditions that resemble episodes of Man vs. Wild. Any given expedition might center on a mountaintop in India, a swampy region in Vietnam, or the jungles of Papua New Guinea, and whatever is found is brought to the Central Identification Laboratory on the island of Oahu for processing and analysis.
Many factors go into identification. Location is key. For instance, if an excavation takes place at the site of a former POW camp or plane crash, historical documents can furnish a short list of candidates. Buttons, heels of boots, or countless other items that might be recovered are examined. Skeletal remains are carefully scrutinized for clues about size, age, ethnicity, previous injuries, and so forth. Teeth, if found, are compared against soldiers' dental records. And as you might suspect, DNA--using reference samples supplied by soldiers' relatives--is also used. That's where I come in.
PNOK and mtDNA
I'm afraid JPAC was just a warm- up when it comes to the alphabet soup aspect of this work, so please bear with me as I introduce the concept of PNOK. When I handle a case, it's my responsibility to find the PNOK, or "primary next of kin," the individual officially considered to be the soldier's closest living relative. To this end, there's a strict hierarchy involving spouses, children, parents (in the early days, I would still find the occasional 100- year- old mother of a Korean War soldier alive), siblings, cousins, and beyond. Should any effects be found, this is the person who will receive them, and should any remains be identified, this is the person who will make the burial decisions.
In addition to locating the PNOK, I'm responsible for locating at least three living relatives with the same mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) as the soldier. Mitochondrial DNA is passed maternally. In a nutshell, mothers transmit it to both their sons and daughters, but their sons don't pass it on. So if, for instance, a soldier from the Korean War had a brother and sister who are both alive, either could provide a reference sample to help identify him. But if both siblings have passed on, the sister's children can give mtDNA samples, but the brother's cannot.
Though Y-DNA (passed paternally from father to son down through the generations) can be used in exceptional cases, this is a recent development and one that still offers somewhat iffy prospects at this time. Mitochondrial DNA is plentiful, and therefore quite resilient. Even in degraded remains, it tends to survive in sufficient quantities to test, so it is the preferred type of DNA for most cases. This results in research that disproportionately emphasizes the maternal half of a soldier's family, and that can be rather challenging since most women's surnames change upon marriage. But with a solution rate that hovers around 95 percent, I can confidently say that there's almost always someone alive with the right DNA to help identify any given soldier.
With all the anthropological, archaeological, dental, linguistic, forensic, and other experts working for JPAC, why is there a need for genealogists as well? Well, to begin with, the paper trail isn't what you might expect. Back in 1973, a fire (along with the water used to extinguish it) destroyed a significant portion of American military personnel records from the twentieth century up to that point. The army was hardest hit with roughly 85 percent of its records damaged or consumed. That's especially regrettable since the majority of those who remain unaccounted for--particularly from the Korean War--served in the army.
For that reason, most of my cases start with skimpy information-- the name and birth date of the soldier, the county he enlisted from, and the name and address of someone associated with him (maybe parents, wife, siblings, or friends) at the time he joined. That's about it. Even with the simplest of cases, decades have passed and relatives have died. It's a given that I will encounter at least these factors, but most cases entail a variety of other roadblocks and detours.
One of these is the fact that Americans have been on the move for centuries. With Vietnam cases, I'm dealing with a forty plus year gap, and with most of my Korean War cases (the largest share of my work), I'm researching soldiers born around the late 1920s based on a few tidbits from the late 1940s. Now ponder our recent history for a bit. Dust bowl migration. The Great Migration. Katrina. Each one of these scrambled people around the country, and that's before we consider the coal miners who left Pennsylvania for auto jobs in Michigan or their children who left Michigan the following generation for jobs in the oil industry in Texas. Then there are the New Yorkers who retire to Florida for a warmer climate or the Californians who retire to Oregon for a lower cost of living. Of course, I can't forget the career military families (like the one I grew up in) that bounce from place to place every few years. Every once in a great while, I find someone in a soldier's family still living at the same address that they (or more likely, their parents) did in 1948, but that's a much- celebrated exception. However you look at it, we are a remarkably mobile society.
Having conducted or orchestrated research in many countries, I can also say that the United States is quite complicated compared to most. Whereas many countries have centralized vital records, for example, each of our states maintains its own birth, marriage, and death records. We were relative latecomers to the establishment and maintenance of such records, and just for fun, each state has its own set of laws determining who's entitled to copies of those records. Many of these rules have become more restrictive since 9/11 and due to growing concerns about privacy, and I've spent untold hours requesting, pleading, cajoling, and campaigning for copies of documents that might help solve a case. I've found that it can be easier to secure a copy of a particular record from Sweden than from Maryland, and I'm not above faxing a state governor or senator for assistance in gaining access to a birth certificate that might help me find a soldier's family.
While I'm on this topic, I might as well answer the question I get all the time: Yes, Hawaii is exceedingly tight with its records. Barack Obama's birth certificate is not treated any differently from any others. I have never succeeded in getting a copy of the birth certificate of a Hawaiian- born soldier, even though my requests are being made on behalf of the federal government and I can prove that the individual in question is long deceased. Some states have inexplicably restrictive laws and refuse to make exceptions for anyone or any reason. One state's department of health (not Hawaii) made it clear that they were quite proud to have rejected the request made by one of their senators to help solve the case of a soldier from their state. I find that attitude perplexing, but it certainly exists. Having dealt with every state at this point, I know which ones are researcher- friendly and which aren't, and I've developed workarounds for the ones that aren't.
The genealogist is also the one who makes the initial contact with a family. This is necessary to confirm that the family tree I've pieced together through the paper trail is correct, as well as to confirm current contact information for family members. Put yourself in the shoes of those who receive these calls. You have, say, an uncle who was killed in Korea and someone calls out of the blue decades later. How are you going to respond? As you might expect, I get every kind of reaction possible. Many are stunned and grateful, but over the last decade, we've become increasingly wary. When I finally manage to get past the hurdles of multiple addresses and unlisted numbers, I frequently get grilled by those who think I'm a scam artist or a creditor (I always offer an 800 number to call the army to verify that I am who I claim to be, but some prefer to vent instead). From time to time, I get yelled at or hung up on. Some are indifferent and some are still angry. And then there are language issues when a case leads me overseas, where the reason for my call or e-mail sounds stranger still to those I'm contacting. I won't lie; this work requires a thick skin. But for every time I bear the brunt of suspicion or pent- up frustration, there's another when I'm showered with gratitude I don't deserve. And I'm the one who has the pleasure of finding the soldier's twin, ninety- year- old siblings hale and hearty, listening to the fond reminiscences of an elderly person happy to have an audience for their memories of the soldier, occasionally reuniting branches of the family who have lost track of each other, or otherwise receiving or delivering good news.
But perhaps the most important reason to use genealogy is this: you have to be right. With JPAC's critical mission, the involvement of soldiers' families, and the use of DNA testing, accuracy matters. I remember watching a documentary about the
H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine that sank in 1864, and much to my horror they mistakenly disinterred a step- relative-- in other words, a person with no blood relationship--in an attempt to identify one of the sailors. While I'm not against disinterment with the aim of solving history mysteries, I think every precaution should be taken to dig up the right people! I'm not saying that mistakes are entirely avoidable. You might DNA test a soldier's relative only to later learn (even to the relative's surprise) of a hidden adoption in the family. Quirky situations definitely arise. But every effort must be made to find the true next- of- kin and potential DNA donors, and it's remarkably easy to bark up the wrong family tree. In fact, the ever- exploding plethora of family history resources that has become available in recent years makes it easier than ever to take a misstep by accidentally latching on to the wrong Smith or Jones family, one that just happens to share a lot in common with the soldier's family.
The Family Factor
Speaking of the families, the soldiers themselves and their families are obviously the raison d'�tre for all this. It's long been said that one of the measures of a civilization is its treatment of its dead, and that's just one of the many reasons I'm so grateful for this "no man left behind" commitment. In terms of genealogy, though, the soldiers' families are representative of the rest of us--and that means that they include every possible circumstance you can imagine.
When I'm lucky, the PNOK and mtDNA candidates overlap. For instance, the soldier's oldest brother or sister might happen to be both, so all I have to do is include a few more siblings or perhaps the children of the sister and I'm done. It sounds straightforward, but rarely is. I can't begin to spell out all the complications that can trip you up, but here's a sampling:
� The soldier was an only child or all his siblings and other close relatives have passed away. (That means I'll wind up reaching out to relatives who have probably never heard of him.)
� His next- of- kin is his oldest brother, but no one's seen him in decades. (Guess who gets to find him?)
� The soldier was adopted or raised in foster care, or his parents were (requiring me to deal with sealed records and other obstacles).
� He's from South Carolina, but enlisted while on vacation in Philadelphia (which wouldn't be a problem if anything in his file indicated that he was from South Carolina, something I'll have to figure out on my own).
� The soldier's name was Henry, but everyone knew him only as Buddy, Junior, or some other nickname (leading to strange conversations where it takes relatives a while to register that I'm calling about the cousin they grew up with).
� The only relative listed is his wife, but there's no sign of her since she remarried into another surname and there's no hint of the soldier's birth family (which essentially doubles the workload since I have to trace both his former spouse and the family he was born into).
� The soldier didn't even know his own mother's name (this sad occurrence makes it considerably more difficult to find mtDNA candidates).
� He was an immigrant and the only one in his family ever to come to America (which translates into adventures with foreign languages and records for me).
� The soldier has plenty of close relatives, but none who share his mtDNA (time to steel myself to dig back several centuries).
� The soldier's parents had half a dozen marriages among them and even his siblings aren't clear on who's a full or half sibling. (It's always fun to sort out what the family itself doesn't know!)
� He lied--about his age, his parents, or even his name (more common than you would expect).
These are some of the more common hiccups. For instance, before Social Security registration truly took hold on a nationwide basis, it was very easy to fib about your age. For that matter, many immigrants didn't know their own birthdays, but the challenge I run into over and over is soldiers who were so patriotic that they lied in order to enter the service underage. Luckily, most of us are unsophisticated liars, so all I usually have to do if I can't find a soldier in birth indexes or records is to look for those born on the same day and month, but one to three years later. Using this tactic, I've discovered soldiers to be as young as fifteen at the time of enlistment.
Over the years, I've bumped into these and countless other hurdles in the course of my research. Of course, protecting the families' privacy is paramount, so to give you a better sense, I'll briefly describe some of my more memorable cases and the unexpected scenarios I've dealt with without disclosing specifics that would point to a particular family.
The Name Game
I've already mentioned that it wasn't unusual for soldiers to round their ages up. That generally presents minimal challenge, but when they lie about their names, it gets trickier. I've only had about half a dozen such cases over the years, but there's no way to know up front that you're dealing with a name- changer. Generally, the discovery is made completely by accident or the hard way, upon the realization that nothing is adding up in spite of exhaustive digging.
I recall one instance when I couldn't get traction on a soldier who should have been easy to find. There were several record sets that should have included him, but didn't. Stumped as to what to do next, I decided to look for others who shared his decidedly Irish- sounding name. When I did this, I couldn't help but notice that one of them lived in Chicago, where he was from. Thinking that this fellow might be a cousin, I gave him a call. That's how I learned that he was the soldier's half brother.
This turned out to be another one of those underage situations. The soldier wanted to enlist, but was too young, so he snagged the birth certificate of his older half brother (same mother, different father, so a different surname as well) and used that to sign up. The family only learned when the half brother whose name he had borrowed happened to be the one at home to receive the telegram declaring the soldier's MIA status. Today it would be exceedingly difficult to enlist under another's name, but in the 1940s, this was much easier than you might suppose, so I have to be open to that possibility.
Because of the nature of this research, I often wind up knowing more about the families I contact than they know themselves, but even I didn't expect to find myself in a situation I've now been in twice. On two separate occasions, I've had to call a septuagenarian and convince them that they had a brother they never knew about who was killed in Korea. In both cases, they had spent their entire lives thinking they were only children, and both handled the startling news very well.
One was a woman whose mother had a son quite young. The son was already in his late teens (on the verge of joining the military) by the time the now seventy- something daughter was born. And for whatever reasons, the mother opted not to tell her second child about the first.
The other case was, in some respects, even more curious. The gentleman I called was the half brother of a soldier he had never heard of. In fact, he and the soldier were born only six months apart (their father apparently had an affair) and both served in Korea, though only the one came home. This half brother wasn't eligible to provide a DNA sample since they had different mothers, but I was able to locate a younger, maternal half brother of the soldier--rather miraculously, as he had recently left the Las Vegas trailer park he lived in for the peace and quiet of Montana-- and he, sharing the same mother, had the desired DNA. The sample the younger brother gave helped identify the soldier, but since seniority factors in (both relatives were half brothers, but the paternal one was older), the one who had no previous knowledge of the soldier was declared his next- of- kin.
This worked out beautifully as the younger brother preferred not to have the responsibility, and the older, newfound brother-- a fellow Korean War veteran--welcomed the right to make burial decisions. He selected Arlington National Cemetery for his brother's final resting place, and his entire family flew from California to attend the funeral of a relative they had never known-- simply because they believed it was the right thing to do.
Given what I've just covered about unknown siblings, you probably won't be shocked to hear about unexpected offspring of soldiers. Think about it. A young man is about to go off to war. He meets a beautiful, young woman and... well, you can guess the rest. As a result, I occasionally turn up a child the soldier's birth family has no clue about. I've found them everywhere from New Jersey to Hawaii, and even in Japan.
Whether to share this information with the soldier's family is a delicate matter, but sometimes the purported child can technically be the soldier's next- of- kin, so he or she can't be ignored. I make case- by- case decisions depending on the specifics and personalities of those involved. Upon telling one very matter- of- fact woman in Texas about her previously unknown grandchild in New Jersey, for instance, she immediately and calmly accepted the situation, remarking on the number of "outside children" in her family. There are others where I've chosen to keep mum because it was clear that the information and child would be unwelcome.
At present, I'm working on one of my more astonishing cases, one that involves a soldier who lost his life in Vietnam. German- born, he came to America as a youngster with his mother after his parents divorced. She married and moved several times, and he eventually joined the army. Perhaps the loss of her only child was too much for his mother, so she eventually returned to Germany, never troubling to inform the soldier's father of her return.
Fast- forward a few decades. I received his case and began the usual research--more challenging than most since I had to find his father in Germany and follow his mother on her circuitous journey through multiple states and marriages back to her motherland. Now eighty- eight and ninety- four, both parents are still alive, and the father learned decades after the fact that his ex- wife was back in the country, but I had stranger news for him still.
During the course of my research, I came across some postings by a fellow claiming to be the soldier's son. It was unclear whether the soldier was ever aware of this son, but knowingly or unknowingly, he began a family tradition as both this child and his son (named after the soldier) went on to join the military. I found the professed son and grandson serving in Iraq and South Korea, respectively.
The resolution at this juncture remains unknown. I made the decision to inform the German relatives (through a diplomatic, native- born German speaker) of the alleged son and grandson, and to offer contact details if they were wanted. Whether they opt to accept this possibility or do anything about it is their choice. I strongly suspect this is truly the soldier's family, but regardless of my beliefs or preferences, I have to play a neutral, third- party role.
Some of the toughest cases are those involving adoption, orphan, or foster care situations. I recall one that was doubly difficult because the soldier was a Swedish immigrant, and when I traced him back across the pond, I learned that he had been raised in foster care. Due to the thoroughness and accessibility of Swedish records, his family was found, but I'm not always as lucky in America.
Some of you might think the heading of this section is a typo and that I meant orphan train, but this is actually deliberate-- though the so- called orphan train was involved. If you're not familiar with it, the orphan train movement involved the transfer of perhaps 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children, primarily from New York City to rural areas. All told, forty- seven states and Canada were involved.
Every once in a while, my cases include one of these children, though it's usually not the soldier himself. In fact, it's almost always his mother. When this happens, it's often possible to solve it due to assistance from the New York Foundling Hospital, which handled many of these adoptions and retained good records, but one family stands out in my memory because I eventually learned that the soldier's mother was a third- generation orphan.
I determined that his mother had lost her parents, but was able to learn their names through the Foundling--only to follow her mother's trail (looking for relatives with the same mtDNA) and ascertain that she was also an orphan. Imagine my frustration when I finally succeeded in identifying the soldier's grandmother's family and then learned that her mother--the soldier's great- grandmother--had also been orphaned.
Regretfully, this remains one of my unsolved cases because the great- grandmother was an immigrant from Ireland with a common name. Given the time frame, it simply wasn't possible to pursue the family any further back in time, and due to the chain of lost parents, the family was lean with no other mtDNA prospects. But the good news is that science is now coming to the rescue. Since the time of this research, Y-DNA (using samples contributed by paternal relatives) has become an alternative, and this is exactly the exceptional kind of case that warrants its use.
No More mtDNA
Dwelling a bit more on mtDNA, I should mention that it's possible but very rare for it to essentially die out in a family. If a soldier was an only child, for instance, you can go back to his mother. If she's passed away, you can search for any sisters she had or their children. If, say, she only had brothers, then you can go back to her mother, the soldier's grandmother, and repeat the process. Each time you run out of mtDNA candidates in a given generation, you back up another one, find fresh contenders, and then trace their lines forward to their living descendants.
In most cases, this process will net you some appropriate maternal relatives within a few generations, but a select few families resist resolution. Sometimes waltzing back to great- grandma means that you're now dealing with another country, which can inject another layer of complexity. And each time you back up, you've got more time to travel back across to get to the present and find living cousins--not to mention the sheer number of candidates who may need to be researched.
Once in a great while, I'll march back a century or two and track countless cousins' lines, only to have them peter out. I'll find myself at my keyboard sighing as I discover that this one became a nun, this one died young, and this one only had sons-- the last of whom died in 2006. The most extreme example was a Vietnam soldier whose family had done such a spectacular job of shedding mtDNA kin that I ultimately found it necessary to reverse all the way back to 1700 before finding a viable branch that made it all the way back to the twenty- first century.
Of course, the natural corollary of reaching so far afield in the soldier's family tree is the experience of cold- calling his third cousins once removed. It tends to make for an interesting conversation when you contact a stranger to discuss a relative they've never heard of who lost his life in WWII. Oddly, this has become a rather normal chat for me, and I remain grateful for the many wonderful souls who have checked the urge to hang up on me, and have instead, heard me out. I think it speaks volumes that the vast majority I call ultimately agree to provide DNA samples, if requested.
"The Number You Have Called..."
"The number you have called has been disconnected or is no longer in service." I don't even want to think about how many times this annoying recording has derailed my quest to reach a soldier's family. As I mentioned earlier, the United States is a ridiculously mobile society. Over the last few decades, we've become a nation of vagabonds, chasing this dream, warmer weather, that boyfriend, lower taxes, or that job. Whatever the impetus, Americans are constantly on the move.
Over recent years we've also become far more obsessed with privacy, as well as much more jaded and suspicious. Over a third of us are hiding behind unlisted numbers, a figure that's soaring due to many dropping traditional landlines. Sad to say, the poor economy means that many of us are running from creditors, and use blocking tools to prevent them from reaching us. And if someone does manage to penetrate all the filters we've set up to make ourselves hard to reach, we're on our guard. Still, I'm grateful for the chance to communicate with relatives, even if they're wary. I can cope with the "Why should I believe you?" and "How do I know this isn't a scam?" concerns if I can at least reach them.
The last decade has developed into something of an accidental social experiment for me since I've been consistently cold calling families all this time. I've been a front- row witness to all these changes, and frankly, my work has become more difficult because of it. It's beyond frustrating to execute some clever research to find a family, only to not be able to talk with them, but it happens all the time. So what do I do when the usual avenues of contact don't work? I get creative!
I'm not proud. I'll do whatever works. Funeral home directors and small town librarians are some of my best friends. If it's still in business, I'll call the funeral parlor that handled the soldier's mother's service in 1996, and see if they can direct me to other family members. Librarians in rural areas will often steer me to older local residents or the town historian.
Was a church mentioned in the obituary of a relative? You can be sure I'm going to call it. Did a human interest story in the local newspaper mention a cousin who worked at this restaurant or that haird